Lourdes in France is a well-known pilgrimage site dedicated to the Marian Apparitions. What if I tell you that a tiny town of Velankanni in Tamil Nadu, India resembles this location? The Basilica of Velankanni, also know as the Velankanni shrine attracts millions of visitors from across the world, some drawn by religious beliefs and others by the exquisite architecture. This little town harbors numerous churches, each with a unique significance but bound by a common faith in Mother Mary. It is one of the few Basilicas in the world and a must visit for the experience. A ritual started by my parents, we carry forward the tradition to this day. So what is it that draws us to this beautiful place? For me it is a pilgrimage. A place of peace and serenity to spend time reflecting on the bygones and refocus on the future. For others, it is a stunning heritage landmark that boasts of several churches with the most exquisite gothic-style architecture.
It was a long weekend and time for our annual family ritual, a three-day trip to Velankanni. This quaint town is located on the banks of Valayar branch of the Cauvery River and is one of the most visited Roman Catholic shrines. We take a three-day trip year on year, together as a family. The 8-hour road trip to this charming town in Tamil Nadu is pleasant, thanks to the well-laid roads. There are numerous restaurants enroute to grab a bite or a scrumptious meal, depending on your preference.
An overview of the several churches in Velankanni
Famously known as The Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health, this town came into the limelight after the Marian apparitions believed to have taken place here in the 16th century and the saving of Portuguese sailors in the 17th century. The first apparition was of a mother with a child who appeared in front of a local shepherd boy who was delivering milk and second is believed to be to a young boy who was crippled and selling buttermilk. It is also believed that Portuguese sailors, who were in the middle of a storm, invoked the protection of Mother Mary. Soon the sea became calm and the ship landed in Velankanni on 8th September. Since then, this day, the Nativity of Mary, is celebrated with great fervor. The two apparitions and the saving of the Portuguese sailors resulted in a shrine that was built to honor Our Lady of Good Health. Over the years numerous churches were constructed and each structure has a story to tell. It is also called Velankanni Matha Church by the locals in Tamil Nadu (Matha means mother). Therefore, they refer to Mother Mary as Velankanni matha.
Velankanni Church: Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health
In 1771, the small thatched shrine of Our Lady of Good Health was turned into a beautiful chapel. The chapel houses a beautiful statue of Mother Mary carrying a child (believed to be infant Jesus). This chapel is alongside a water tank, known as Matha Kulam (Our Lady's Tank) from which the shepherd boy is believed to have drunk water. This tank has never run out of water since and is believed to be holy water that devotees consume and carry back home. Several miracles are believed to have taken place on consumption of this holy water.
Our Lady's Tank, where Mother Mary appeared to the shepherd boy
The Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health dates back to the 16th century and was built in the typical gothic style. Later, the architecture underwent changes following the Portuguese invasion. The main Basilica of Velankanni is the place where offerings are made and prayer services were held. Gradually, several expansions took place. The southern side of the church was extended in the year 1928 while the northern side underwent extension in 1933. However, in the year 1974-75, extensions were made keeping in mind the design of the Basilica in Lourdes, France. As it stands now, there is the main Basilica behind which is the Lower Basilica. Prayer services are held in both churches through the day in several languages. There is an additional church above the Lower Basilica where prayer services are held occasionally. All these extensions have been planned and executed seamlessly. One will not realize that these additions were made over a period of time, owing to the uniformity of all the structures. Exquisite, white, and stunning! Several phases of expansion took place owing to the increase in the number of pilgrims and travelers over the years.
Intricate architecture of the Basilica of Our Lady of Vailankanni
Besides the main Basilica and its extensions, there are smaller churches in the vicinity with specific significance. The Naduthitu Church is situated at the beginning of the road leading to the Basilica. This church signifies the place where the lame boy was healed by Mother Mary. Here no masses are offered; only pilgrims offer prayers and spend time in silence.
The Naduthitu Church, a symbol of the many miracles that are believed to have taken place here
Another beautiful place to spend time in silence and reflection is the Adoration Chapel. The approach to this chapel is scenically decorated and adds to the charm and peaceful ambience. Here one can spend hours in silence and experience tranquility and serenity that is surreal.
The Adoration Chapel - A place for reflection
The latest addition to this conglomerate of churches is the Morning Star Church in Velankanni. This magnificent church is an architectural marvel. Besides the sheer size, the design and detail is unbelievable. The highlight though is the fact that this structure is engineered to stand without the support of a single pillar inside. Imagine that! The interiors are aesthetically done. The huge stained glass windows and the intricately designed doors enhance the beauty of the Church. The altar is exquisite and ornate, one of the largest in the world. Drawing your attention to the roof are the gigantic propeller fans that create a cool ambience. Once you enter the church you get lost in the enormity of every aspect of its construction and decor. This is one of those structures that will leave you awe struck. This is where Velankanni live mass is conducted in Tamil and English.
The Morning Star Church Velankanni: A masterpiece of architectural excellence; 500 ft. long, 150 ft. wide and 40 ft. high
Jesus Statue of Velankanni is another wonder in this tiny town. This enormous statue can be seen from a distance and has placed Velankanni on the world map for its magnificence. The stupendous size is overwhelming and leaves you just standing there feeling tiny and insignificant. One thing that runs common in all the churches is the color, all the structures are predominantly white. This creates an ambience of purity and serenity everywhere.
Jesus Statue of Velankanni, a towering structure that is 200 ft. tall
As a pilgrim, there are several rituals that are followed. One of the common rituals is offering candles as thanksgiving. Wax replicas of various body parts are also offered to Mother Mary seeking recovery and healing from ailments. There is also the option to offer silver images of male, female, baby, house, wedding rings etc. Another famous ritual performed by devotees is tonsure. This is a very Indian culture and is usually done to fulfill vows for health and prosperity. One of the more challenging rituals that devotees undertake is walking on their knees on the sand along the Holy to fulfill their vows. This is usually done along the Holy Path leading to Our Lady's Tank. It is heart-warming and heart-breaking at the same time. The path has beautiful depictions all along side. One side has the depictions of The Way of the Cross and the other has The Mysteries of the Holy Rosary. Pilgrims are also seen reciting the rosary while walking along the Holy Path. Annually, on September 8, the feast of Our Lady of Good Health (also known as the Velankanni festival) is celebrated with grandeur. Millions of pilgrims throng the place to participate in this auspicious celebration.
One of the beautiful depictions along the Holy Path
My favorite thing to do is spending time outside the church when the crowds have disappeared, in the calm of the night. The feeling of merging with the surroundings and imbibing the beautiful sensations is grounding and I head back to my resort feeling rejuvenated and blessed.
Stunning view of the Velankanni Shrine at night
Another attraction just outside the Main Basilica is The Velankanni Church Museum. This place is dedicated to the miracle that happened in the 16th century (the appearance of Virgin Mary) and has an extensive display of offerings made by individuals who have received favor and blessings from Mother Mary. It also has some of the greatest collection of the exhibits imparting immense knowledge about the churches. Inside the museum, there is a bookstall as well as counters to buy blessed oil, religious souvenirs, and offer masses.
About 14 kms from Velankanni, is a small church known as St. Anne's Church famously known as St. Santhanamatha Church. This is one of the offbeat places to visit in Velankanni. History has it that in the 1930s, the statue of St. Santhanamatha was brought from Sri Lanka to this village of Rangiem near Velankanni. It is believed that the villagers started worshiping her and saw many wonders and miracles take place. Word spread about these miracles and people from near and far started visiting this church to offer their prayers. Over the years, this church was renovated to accommodate the massive flow of devotees. The church exudes the same positivity and calmness as that of the churches in Velankanni.
Saint Anne Catholic Church is also known as St. Santhanamatha Church
We traveled to Nagapattinam to visit Our Lady of Lourdes Church, which is also known as Nagapattinam Church. It is one of the oldest churches in the area and has a history of 600 years! Although it is a small, old church, the architecture is beautiful and there is such a positive aura in and around the church. This church is visited by a large number of devotees and it is a must visit if one visits Velankanni. We spent some time wandering around and absorbing the beauty and positivity of the place.
Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Nagapattinam
Visitors to Velankanni are overwhelmingly pilgrims, but there are also travelers in search of offbeat coastal destinations. This town caters to a broad spectrum of travelers and has a variety of accommodation from luxurious resorts to budget rooms. It is preferred to make advance booking during peak season as there are millions of pilgrims visiting at that time. Food is also available in a similar fashion. From simple south Indian meals to exotic seafood, it is all there for tourists to enjoy and experience. Of special mention are the live seafood counters along the beach which is a must try. Here, there is another interesting dish called Kothu Parotta. The preparation of this dish is performance in itself and keeps customers entertained.
A trip to Velankanni is always memorable, irrespective of how many times you visit. A place that bounced back after being devastated by the tsunami, it speaks volumes about the resilience of the people of this bustling town. Surely, special blessings and grace are upon this land. It is a place we would love to go back to over and over again. Rituals accomplished and blessings acknowledged, we leave this blessed abode heading back home, to move forward, renewed.
The beautiful holy town at night
Why is Velankanni church famous?
The history of Velankanni churches dates back to the 16th century. It is believed that Mother Mary had appeared in this small village. It is the most revered pilgrimage in India for Catholics.
In which year did Mother Mary appear in Velankanni?
It is believed that Mother Mary with an infant child (believed to be Jesus) in her hand appeared in Velankanni during the 16th century.
Why do people shave their head in Velankanni?
Shaving head is an Indian tradition that devotees perform at pilgrimage places. This is their way to fulfill their wishes for health and safety of their children and family members.